2007 - 2020

A Lesson from Snowdonia


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In 1966 I spent Easter working on the Festiniog Railway, then running about half its length from the old slate port of Porthmadog towards Blaenau Festiniog and its moonscape of derelict slate quarries and their gigantic tips. The brightly-coloured little trains with their tourists looked like caravanned gypsies camping out on a World War I battlefield. Perhaps a telling simile as the man who won the war, David Lloyd George, had started as a ‘damned little Welsh attorney’ in a Porthmadog office. Across the Vale of Festiniog, above Maentwrog, was rising the immense bulk of Trawsfynydd nuclear reactor. Remember when this magic was going to produce power ‘so cheap we won’t have to bill you’?

Trawsfynydd stopped generating in 1996 and is slowly being demolished, though the reactor core will be around for a few thousand years. But within sight of the ruin, the steam technology of Lloyd George’s day has undergone a spectacular – and remarkably cheap – renaissance. In 2011 the last three miles of the Welsh Highland Railway will reopen, after the Channel Tunnel link the longest railway completed in Britain, certainly the most spectacular, and built to a budget which wouldn’t pay the Celtic team for a year.

But the Welsh Highland is the Ross County of railways, so in Scotland, with a farmyard full of transport turkeys, we had better pay attention to it.

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Not least because the line was, at one stage, Scots-owned. In the 1900s the Edinburgh electrical contractors Bruce Peebles bought the struggling concern, which then ran from Dinas, near Caernarfon, to Snowdon Ranger, just under the great peak – a route that lost traffic when the rack railway reached the summit in 1896. The nearby Festiniog didn’t just carry vast cargoes of slate in its tiny trucks, it pioneered narrow gauge lines as a means of catering for tourists in spectacular scenic areas, and the Scots (with an eye on the ingenious Swiss) had electrification in mind. Then World War I intervened, the slate traffic collapsed and the WHR struggled until the 1939 war finally did for it. By 1980, when the Festiniog had been revived and with it another eight Welsh lines, much the WHR’s trackbed had vanished.

So had traditional tourism to the boarding houses of the North Wales coast and Cardigan Bay. But the upgrading of the A55 to Holyhead had brought Snowdonia within easy reach of Manchester and Liverpool and it faced the fate of the Lake District after the completion of the M6 to Kendal and Penrith, to drown in a flood of cars each weekend. The Festiniog’s desire to resurrect its neglected cousin came at just the right time. John Prescott, briefly in charge of transport, gave the go-ahead in 1998. The Lottery and the Welsh Assembly Government chipped in £ 5 million each, volunteers and donations made up the rest of £ 25 million, and next year the last, level stretch opens to Porthmadog. Level the rest of the line is not, rising to a summit of 600 feet north of Beddgelert with dramatic views of the Snowdon massif, then rushing down the Gwyrfai valley to terminate under Carnarfon’s walls. New roads would have blasted the charm out of the region; save for the smoke and steam as a train passes, the six-foot way of the WHR can hardly be seen.

A genius for picking up old materiel, adapting and converting it accounted for much of the saving. Trawsfynydd might be dead but the Festiniog’s works at Boston Lodge converted the big South African engines which pull the ten-carriage trains; the track came from Austria and Poland. Much of the labour was from volunteers. Result: an important tourist line, two-thirds of the length of our Fort William-Mallaig superstar, built for a tenth of the prospective cost of the Edinburgh-Galashiels line, an infinitesimal proportion of the second Forth Road Bridge. Considering tourism in the age of Peak Oil, the railway enthusiasm of the Welsh (who have since 1999 reopened fifty miles of line to Scotland’s fifteen) has been money spent wisely and well.

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  1. Tocasaid says:

    I particularly admire the Welsh for how they’ve resurrected and subsequently protected their native language, especially in Snowdonia/ Eryri.

    This need to develop our indigenous bio-linguistic diversity is something the Scots could learn from our Cuimreach cousins.

  2. C.Graves says:

    It’s nice to hear such nice words about Wales! But it’s not entirely true that ‘they’ve resurrected and subsequently protected their native language, especially in Snowdonia/ Eryri.’ The reality is much more banal; Welsh has never stopped being the primary language in areas like Eryri, rural Dyfed, and has survived despite lack of protection (primarily because of strong communities and a lot of social glue i.e ‘us and them’ mentality on the side of Welsh speakers.) And although the growth in the number of speakers increased by more than the total number of Gaelic speakers in the world between 1991 and 2001, the language is still in decline in its heartlands.

    Thanks for a great blog; the peak oil point is particularly prescient and something I hadn’t thought of. (Being familiar with the WHR)

  3. Tocasaid says:

    Good to hear that Welsh has never stopped being the principal language in the Eryri. In Scotland, it is doubtful if Gaelic remains the principle language even in some areas of the Western Isles heartlands. There, less English settling or else a firm commitment like they have in Wales that every pupil exiting primary would be fluent in the local language would remedy the situation. Unfortunately, the Scots Gael generally seems to have reacted differently to the repression suffered by past generations.

  4. Sean says:

    I have to agree with you, a Thocasaid chòir. The frustrating thing is that Gaelic *is* still reasonably ‘strong’ (i.e. most people can speak and understand it) in the Western Isles but the actions we make just now will decide its future and, unfortunately Comhairle nan Eilean remains committed to the easiest possible policy decisions it can make – it at least has to, because of the Gaelic Act.

    For people who don’t know about the situation of Gaelic: one of the best examples is the story of the Gaelic-medium unit. If we’re really honest – GME units haven’t been as successful as we’d like. This isn’t surprising, however, they were never meant to be the end-goal – and I remember one of those who helped establish them admit to this on Radio nan Gàidheal. Gaelic kids in an – ultimately – English environment, like most Scottish schools don’t leave being amazingly fluent – they tend to be brilliantly at most things *except* for their Gaelis language skills.

    The problem is Comhairle nan Eilean thinks that GME units equate to provision enough for Gaelic in the islands, when in fact most children now go through schooling without the language, and the remainder don’t have near enough of it – spoken or written etc. – to be as fluent as they should be.

    The only way “that every pupil exiting primary would be fluent in the local language ” is to push for all island schools to be Gaelic schools. Why should genuinely providing *both* languages be considered the exception rather than the norm?

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